How has Steve Cook developed into a defensive linchpin at Bournemouth?
Every football club needs a mixture of characters. There are the extroverts, who enjoy being the centre of attention. Then there are the introverts; softer personalities who undertake their duties with little fuss or fanfare. AFC Bournemouth’s Steve Cook falls into the latter category. The unassuming centre-back is not one to seek out the limelight; he is happy to leave that to those who feel more comfortable in such surroundings. But his quiet exterior belies a determination that has enabled him to become one of the first names on the team-sheet.
Bournemouth’s recent 6-1 demolition of Hull City was their biggest ever victory in the Premier League. But it was also notable for another milestone – Cook’s 200th appearance for the club he joined from Brighton and Hove Albion in January 2012, a bargain at £150,000. The match itself was an eventful one for Cook. He was culpable for Hull’s equaliser after misplacing a simple pass but made amends by restoring the Cherries’ advantage shortly afterwards. It was testament to Cook’s mental fortitude that he was able to forget his error and have a positive influence on the game, one which will live long in his memory.
To have reached this landmark is worthy of significant praise. The decision to leave his hometown club and relocate along the south coast was not taken lightly. Brighton were a Championship outfit with designs on reaching the Premier League after moving into a brand-spanking new 30,000-seater stadium. But Cook had found himself down the pecking order under boss Gus Poyet and desperately wanted regular first-team football, even if it meant dropping down a division. After a short loan spell at the Cherries, he put pen to paper on a permanent deal.
Nearly five years on, his courage in embarking on a step into the unknown has been handsomely rewarded with two promotions. Mirroring the club, Cook has developed year on year but in this campaign, early though it may be, his performances have reached a level that will have surprised even his most enthusiastic supporters. Cook’s partnership with captain Simon Francis has looked a settled one, at the heart of the same back four that has started every league game to date. With that continuity in mind it is no coincidence the team’s defensive record has improved, resulting in three clean sheets in their opening nine matches. The form of goalkeeper Artur Boruc has also been fundamental to this upturn.
Much like Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, playing the ball out from the back is a pre-requisite for Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe. He doesn’t want his central defenders to hoof the ball aimlessly upfield or into row Z; he wants them to retain possession whenever possible. This is where Cook’s technical ability as a footballer – not just a defender – is so crucial. He is often the start of an attacking move, receiving the ball on the edge of the box from Boruc and feeling confident enough to stride forward before finding a team-mate in a forward position.
Sticking to Howe’s philosophy can occasionally result in embarrassment, as Cook discovered to his cost against Hull when he gifted the ball to an opponent in a dangerous area. That’s the risk of playing in such a manner. But no player is immune from making mistakes – it is the way he responds that matters most. In that regard, Cook has always demonstrated the right attitude to learn from his. With more than 200 appearances to his name, Cook is now a senior player and a mainstay of the starting XI. And given the paucity of centre-backs at the disposal of England boss Gareth Southgate, could international recognition be on the horizon?